Tuesday, December 05, 2006

This is not an extra

Is it me, or is it getting kinda metafictional in here? First of all, This Life is to return, reuniting the famous five by deploying the device of Egg writing a roman à clef about his former flatmates; essentially, a fictional fiction that disguises a fictional reality that was successful because it was so 'real'. Fortunately, writer Amy Jenkins has resisted the urge to slap on another few layers of unreality by scripting the whole thing as a mockumentary, or the whole self-referential edifice would surely come crashing down, like an overambitious Black Forest gateau from Heston Blumenthal. Or England's second innings.

But maybe it was always thus. Kingsley Amis's biographer has uncovered the manuscript of an unpublished novel, The Legacy, in which the resolute foe of all flavours of postmodernist silliness creates a hero called - wait for it - 'Kingsley Amis'. Although this isn't actually Kingsley Amis, of course, any more than his son's 'Martin Amis' was really Martin Amis. The 'real' Kingsley described the character as "a young man like myself only nastier", and if you know half the stories of Amis Sr's misdeeds, that's pretty damn nasty.

Of course, if The Legacy had been published in the early 50s, its impact would have been weakened because hardly anybody knew who Amis was. Or, more specifically, it wouldn't have worked because the public Amis persona wasn't fully developed, to whatever extent that related to the real Kingsley. Walk-on roles for TV celebs work because a critical mass of the viewing public will have an idea of what they're like, or what they're not like. Keith Chegwin as bigot, or Chris Martin as cynical opportunist, are ploys that worked in Extras, because they're so comically out of sync with how these people are usually portrayed. (It would be interesting to see how Ricky Gervais might have used someone with a serious PR problem - Michael Barrymore? OJ Simpson? Jonathan King? Mel Gibson? Michael Richards? - and the extent to which they might have been prepared to play ball.)

Most fiction writers can't pull stunts like this, because their lives and personalities don't tend to be so public. Obviously there are exceptions, such as the celeb fiction peddled by the likes of Pamela Anderson, or the bizarre reality fiction genre that I spotted a few weeks ago (effectively, celebrity fiction by non-celebrities).

But most modern writers of literary fiction lead mundane little lives, well below the radar of the paparazzi, although Salman Rushdie's hasn't been without incident, and he had a bash at fictionalising it in Fury. Usually, though, the knowing winks are restricted to Paul Auster-style writing-about-writing. It takes a special kind of writer to merge Austerian metafiction with the pile-'em-high celeb tradition - not because few writers have the technical ability, but because even fewer of them are allowed behind the velvet rope in the first place. Margaret Atwood's fluctuating weight doesn't make the pages of Heat magazine, and nobody gets excited at the thought of a video of Julian Barnes having sex with a rock drummer.

The closest the two worlds have come in recent years was the advent of the literary Brat Pack in the 1980s: and it seems fitting that it falls to Bret Easton Ellis to create this kind of fictional mash-up, which is effectively what his last novel Lunar Park turned out to be. Like Amis (père et fils) and Auster, he creates a character with his own name. But from this mundane starting point, he begins playing with the reader's expectations and preconceptions from the start. Even before the action starts, the book's dedication commemorates Ellis's father (who has a looming presence in the narrative) and his boyfriend (who doesn't, since in this version of Bretland, the superstar novelist is married, albeit messily, to an actress). So, this clearly isn't 'really' BEE - except that so many of the 'real' reference points are there, including fellow BratPacker Jay McInerney, with whom 'Ellis' shares a nostril or two of 1980s nostalgia. And there are countless acknowledgements of his past oeuvre, including the Elvis Costello poster from Less Than Zero and even a fully-realised character from American Psycho, whose significance is surely spotted by the alert reader many pages before the narrator susses it.

It's these literary nods and winks that the author takes to a deliriously illogical conclusion, when Ellis realises that another crucial character has stepped out of the pages of a novel that was never published. Or was it? The McInerney walk-on and the American Psycho brouhaha can raise a knowing chuckle or two for his devoted fans. But did Ellis - the real one, the gay one - write the unpublished novel he describes? Or has he invented it - has he invented the reality of a fiction? Which raises all sorts of subsidiary questions, chief among them: can a fiction be autobiographical if we, the readers, don't know the real details of the autobiography?

19 comments:

Billy said...

I just started reading Lunar Park this morning - whooo spooky. As I don't know much about Ellis' life, I'm not sure what's real and what isn't. It's a good read so far.

I like Auster's stuff too. Have you read the Dave Eggers book?

Anonymous said...

Heston Blumenthal Black Forest gateau, England's second innings!
You are painting wonderful pictures with words, TF!

Spinsterella said...

Oh, I read Lunar Park on holiday.

Although I'd read American Psycho and Less than Zero (many, many times in my misspent youth) and I know more about Bateman than I do about most authors, it was still difficult to know where reality ended and fiction began.

Which was half the fun of the book.

Oh, look, I just called Ellis Bateman in the above pargraph!

There are bits in LP where the narration sounds exactly like Bateman - if you remember the bit about the limes?

But I was also intrigued by the apparent reality/fiction crossover in LTZ - I was particularly taken by the poster bit as well. Because hasn't BEE always maintained that LTZ wasn't remotely autobiographical?

In LP he says that he inferred heavily in AS that the murders were all in Bateman's head - disappointingly clearing that debate up for once and for all.

But is Ellis actually saying that, or is it the fictional married-with-kids suburban Ellis?

(I'll shut up now.)

treespotter said...

shit, the connection is slow i been trying to reload.

i forgot what it was that i wanted to say, but the subject reminds me of Naked Lunch.

in its own weird way.

David Eggers is pretty good, too. reading it right now.

Tim Footman said...

Billy: Eggers was OK, but I've got this blind-spot about him, and keep getting him mixed up with Dave Pelzer, who kick-started all those Ihadahorriblechildhood memoirs.

Murph: Why thank you. but if I could really paint such wonderful pictures, I'd create a landscape where Giles didn't drop Ponting, and Flintoff didn't declare till 700. Openings for Panesar, Read, maybe Mamood and Joyce, I reckon. And a big hug for Collingwood.

Spin: I think it was the ersatz Ellis who was denying the reality of the Bateman murders. What author would depth-charge such a major reading-group point of debate in one of his own books. And as for LTZ not being autobiographical... yeah, whatever, Bret.

The funny thing is, my reading of Ellis's novels tends to be autobiographical, or rather aspirational. I read LTZ just before I started college; I read American Psycho just before I started my first real job (ie one where I wore a suit); did I read Lunar Park just before I became a globally famous author whose personal life goes down the toilet? Hmmm...

Treespotter: The bit where he shoots his wife was autobiographical. That was Naked Lunch, wasn't it?

Spinsterella said...

Oh Tim, you should write a book about how your own life seems to be mirroring that of BEE!

But is it the real BEE or the fictional one? And how will we know?

And is it the real Tim or a fictional alter-ego....aaarrrgh!

This is great fun. I haven't done ANY work today yet.

Billy said...

He does a pretty good impression of himself.

Tim Footman said...

Dear Spinny's Boss,

Spinny can't come to work today, because she doesn't exist. If you don't like it, you can shove it up your arse, which doesn't exist either.

Love,

Bret (who created Spinny in a short story that may or may not exist)

Weirder and weirder: the word verification is "spfnis", which is Lithuanian for "Spinster", probably.

Tim Footman said...

Ooh good, Billy, you spotted it. I was waiting...

treespotter said...

yup. apparently decided they wanted to play william tell. with a .45

most of it were apparently autobiographical, so you know that guy was high the whole time.

treespotter said...

okay, my last comment on WSB ever, but this is his dialogue with Kerouac while editing Naked Lunch,
"Bill, what's this stuff about young naked boys being hanged in limestone caves?"
WSB, "No idea. I know I'm some kind of interplanetary agent but I don't think my signals are decoding properly."

now, that's one for an autobiography.

Anonymous said...

ooh, the 80's Literary Brat Pack! Have to include a shout out to Breece D'J Pancake.

The very idea that Ellis would be self-referential (did I say reverential?) is just shocking. To me he's always been a writer from the school of MOMMY MOMMY LOOK AT ME

dh said...

For fiction about fiction about fiction nothing surpasses Nabokov's 'Pale Fire'.

Tim Footman said...

Tree: That's brilliant, I've never heard that quote before.

Tom: I won't give the game away, but LP is more about Daddy.

dh: It's fiction within fiction and there are refs to other Nabokov books but (as far as I can remember, and I'm sure you'll tell me if I'm wrong) Nabokov himself is absent.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately, writer Amy Jenkins resisted the urge to slap on another few layers of unreality by scripting the whole thing as a mockumentary

Although I heard a rumour that there is a film crew in it.

I've been idly speculating about what else the reunion will contain but it seems surprisingly hard to work out where the characters would be ten years on. (Although a tiny bit of my brain is still wondering if Anna was pregnant with Miles's child.)

Anonymous said...

Ellis' books always make me feel extremely uncomfortable and in need of a good wash. I like Dave Eggars though and Paul Auster.

Tim Footman said...

Mags: As I understand it, there is a film crew, which probably means there will be some to-camera stuff, but they're not doing the whole thing as a mockumentary. There will be 'real' cameras as well. In fact, I reckon This Life was a big influence on Dogme, but Lars and co are to embarrassed to say...

Doc: I know what you mean. But the music criticism chapters of American Psycho (Genesis, Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis) are possibly the funniest pieces of comic writing in the last quarter century.

dh said...

Yes Tim, perhaps 'Pale Fire' doesn't quite meet all the criteria. Nabokov himself is only a pale shade, a waxwing at the window. But his usual nostalgic references to vanished kingdoms are very much present.

Pod said...

i just finished lunar park and loved it to a point and then thought 'oh' i got a little bored of what i thought was just the reality of his drug-fucked paranoia/coke psychosis? so i am left not really knowing how i feel about it.